Why you should care

Because a lot and yet nothing has changed since 1972.

One night in 1972, a handsome, middle-aged man took a knife to cut the iconic cherubic face from Venus in Sandro Botticelli’s classical painting celebrating the goddess’ birth. The man committing the sacrilege? John Berger, author of three novels — including G., which won that year’s Booker Prize — and a man who would become a much-celebrated polymath: playwright, screenwriter, painter and activist, among other things. His act of faux vandalism, which aired on British television, came with a voice-over warning that viewers would have their assumptions about art challenged.

Ways of Seeing, a four-episode art documentary that aired on BBC Two, ruthlessly questioned the ideologies behind artistic images. In each episode, Berger, who died Monday at 90 in his home in a Paris suburb, generously demystified Renaissance art for the masses without ever condescending. Rather than pious adulation for the work of the masters, he asked us to look closer at the paintings of the time and to question what it was, exactly, that they were celebrating.

I am struck by how radical and innovative the series still looks.

Novelist Geoff Dyer

Wearing stylishly wild 1970s hair and a patterned silk shirt, Berger put tough questions directly to the camera. Does this intricately painted landscape applaud nature or the wealth and pride of the landowners standing in the foreground? Does this nude ask us to see the natural beauty of the female form, or have we been duped into something closer to objectification in the name of art?

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A portrait of John Berger

Source Francis Tsang / Getty

“John was a new kind of presenter,” says novelist Geoff Dyer, whose own career began with a book entitled Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger. “I am struck by how radical and innovative the series still looks.” Dyer contends that modern art documentaries don’t hold a candle to the inventiveness of Berger and the series’ director, Mike Dibb, largely because they don’t enjoy the same level of creative license.

Such freedoms allowed Berger and Dibb to turn what could have been a dull undergraduate lecture into captivating television. In looking at a Caravaggio painting, Berger juxtaposed the obfuscating language of an art catalog with the clarity of children describing the same painting (the kids get it right). Elsewhere, the show cut between close-ups of painted figures in a montage overlaid with operatic music, conjuring from a single painting a scene that’s practically out of a Francis Ford Coppola film. Nudes were discussed alongside feminist ideas of objectification — long before we were all hip to the pitfalls of discussing such ideas. Berger was subtle enough to understand that it shouldn’t just be a man lecturing on what women feel. He turned nearly an entire episode over to a group of women who — next to close-ups of the faces in nude paintings, many of which lacked signs of individuality — shattered the naive idea that just because it’s art, it can’t be discussed in terms of feminist concerns.

But Berger was careful to make a distinction between mediocre paintings from the era and the notable exceptions we see in museums today. It seems obvious, and yet the truth hits viewers as startling: Aside from the masters, there were thousands of uninspired oil paintings from the same period. These moments demonstrate Berger’s ability to make us question why we never considered something so obvious before. The answer? We weren’t really looking. Ways of Seeing, and Berger’s book of the same title, aimed to give us new eyes.

Elsewhere in the series, pointing out the astounding proliferation of images already happening in the ’70s, from the replication of paintings onto postcards and into magazines, TV and films, Berger believed that such easy access to art would make traveling to see paintings in person redundant. “The days of pilgrimage are over,” he told the camera. But Dyer says this is one prediction Berger got wrong. “People seem more willing than ever to make art pilgrimages,” he says. Even so, they “often go to … these museums, and when they get there, they take a picture of a painting that they’ve already seen reproduced a thousand times.”

Berger’s astounding career was already well underway when Ways of Seeing was broadcast. But it was this show that sparked a coup against the bland, recycled approaches to criticism curators and critics had so long preferred, and back to which the pendulum always tends to swing when we forget how to truly see. Berger’s message is still crucial, and today’s casual publication of millions of new images every day, via social media, makes Ways of Seeing even more relevant now than in 1972.

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